Frank O’Connor was, as some would have it, Ireland’s master storyteller. Short stories of his, such as the tragic Guests of the Nation, are immovable objects in the national literary canon.
In the introduction to a book of essays about the Corkonian in 1969, Harold MacMillan, former Prime Minister and chairman of the publishing house whose relationship with O’Connor stretched back to bringing out his first book in 1931, heaped praise on “the young Irish rebel and the mature friend of wartime Britain, the eccentric librarian, the enthusiastic man of the theatre and the meticulous self-taught scholar, the sonorous translator of Irish poetry and the superlative short story-writer, the inspiring master lecturer and the dogged master of the seminar. All were unquestionably the same unique and original man.”
As Catholic Ireland recedes from view at a rate of knots, O’Connor (1903-1966) is one of those writers we might turn to in order to understand and remember it better. He was a critic of the Church, but a thoughtful one; and the intricacies of his argument with Irish Catholicism may best be summed up in an act of editing rather than writing. I am thinking of the three poems that bring to an end an anthology that O’Connor compiled called A Book of Ireland.
The first of these, “To a Boy”, is an anonymous Irish lyric of the 16th century, translated by O’Connor himself. It concludes:
So let all learning in;
Be pure in mind and breast
For the voice that speaks to the heart
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